Alomar not ready? Then don't rush him

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Orioles took their team picture yesterday.

"Are you in it?" Sun baseball writer Joe Strauss asked Roberto Alomar, teasing the Orioles' second baseman.

"Come around in September and ask me that question," Alomar replied, eyes gleaming.

Alas, it's still only August.

And Alomar still is not healthy.

He returned from the disabled list in last night's 5-4 loss to Kansas City, but lasted only five innings after experiencing tightness in his groin.

Manager Davey Johnson said Alomar left the game with the score tied 4-4 "just to be safe." The extent of his injury won't be known until today.

Alomar was unavailable for comment.

"He said it was bothering him a little bit, nothing serious as far as he was concerned," Johnson said. "It's a day-to-day thing, I guess. I definitely won't push it."

The Orioles might have pushed it too far already. They could have waited for rosters to expand Monday before activating Alomar. Instead, they made the move yesterday, demoting pitcher Esteban Yan.

Johnson said the decision was largely Alomar's, but the club could have taken the extra precaution to ensure he was healthy.

What would have been the harm?

Johnson pulled Mike Mussina from an 11-strikeout game after five innings Saturday night, saying he wanted his ace fresh for September.

The same logic should apply to Alomar.

His seemingly low tolerance for pain has at times frustrated club officials this season. But the Orioles keep winning without him.

Indeed, the most amazing thing about their 83-45 record is that they've achieved it without a major contribution from their All-Star second baseman.

"Losing him and Eric at the same time was really devastating," Johnson said. "It could have been devastating. But the character of this club wouldn't let it be."

Jeff Reboulet and Aaron Ledesma replaced Alomar in the starting lineup from July 30 to Aug. 24, and the Orioles went 18-6, increasing their lead from 5 1/2 to seven games.

Alomar went 1-for-3 before departing last night, but he still isn't at full strength, hasn't been all season and probably won't be until 1998.

Yet the bottom line is, the Orioles probably can't get to the World Series without him.

"To go to the level where we need to go, Robbie is crucial," assistant general manager Kevin Malone said.

Thus, it makes no sense to rush Alomar, even if it seems that he should be fully recovered after nearly a month of rehabiliation in Florida.

But to hear Johnson tell it, Alomar might be rushing himself.

"The report was that he was 90 percent," the manager said. "Robbie said he's been working hard, that he'd be ready to go [last night]. I checked with him, he said he was fine, he was grinning ear to ear.

"Game conditions, you go out there, obviously there's a little more energy. He wasn't playing any games down there. A big-league situation is a lot different than running around the outfield taking ground balls."

Before last night's game, Alomar said he was "95 percent." But groin strains are tricky. Johnson couldn't say definitively whether it would be day-to-day with Alomar or a "two-week thing."

All season, it has been something.

First, it was Alomar's ankle, then his shoulder, then his groin. He has appeared in 92 games and batted .298, but he hasn't been the same player who carried the Orioles at the beginning and end of last season.

Remember that guy?

He set a club record with 132 runs scored. He hit the home run that clinched the wild card in Toronto. And he produced the tying and winning hits in the decisive game of the Division Series in Cleveland.

Oh yeah, him.

"Robbie has a special ability that most players don't have," Malone said. "He's already one of the best in the game. And he can turn it up a notch, play at a higher level, deliver whatever you need when it needs to be delivered."

As Rafael Palmeiro put it, "Robbie is at a different level."

That is, when he's healthy.

Clearly, his groin is not fully healed. And his shoulder is still bad enough that Alomar, a switch-hitter, won't bat right-handed again this season.

In other words, it's possible he wouldn't start against Randy Johnson in Game 1 of a Division Series against Seattle -- or Game 5 if necessary.

Granted, the Orioles have won all three games Johnson has started against them this season without Alomar.

But with all due respect to Reboulet and Ledesma, you'd rather have Alomar -- a .342 career hitter in the postseason -- facing Johnson at the deafening Kingdome in October.

"If he's mentally right, I don't care what side of the plate he's hitting from," Malone said. "I'm sure there would be a slight advantage if he could bat right-handed against left-handers. As good as he is, I don't think it's going to matter."

Again, it all depends on his health. The Orioles play eight more games before they head to New York. But even then, they wouldn't need to rush Alomar.

They need him for September, but they need him even more for October. Roberto Alomar posed for the team photograph yesterday. He still isn't in the team picture.

Pub Date: 8/27/97

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